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Performing gospel music is a family affair for Wingerts

August 02, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - In 1976, Elwood and Viola Wingert and their four children decided it was time to sell the family dairy farm and follow their destiny: To go out and sing the gospel.

They bought an old bus and took to the road as the Wingert Family Singer, singing their brand of gospel music at churches, weddings, funerals, retirement centers, schools, barbecues, carnivals, fairs, prisons and eventually radio and television. They've recorded nearly a dozen albums on CDs and cassettes.

Their tours cover the four-state area and beyond.

By the early 1980s, the Greencastle family was doing nearly 200 performances a year, often three a day, especially on Sundays. "We'd set up and take down the equipment three times in one day," Viola said.

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"We were younger then," said Vonnie Wingert, the chief songwriter of the group. Now, the foursome does about 75 concerts a year, she said. Her parents are retired, but she and her brother, Dean, have jobs.

Vonnie Wingert has written more than 20 gospel songs over the years. She recently was honored by having one of them, "Healer of Your Heart," recorded by the Kingdom Heirs, a well-known professional gospel group in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Another of Vonnie's song, "America, My Home," has a patriotic theme. She wrote it in 1980 after seeing the American hostages return home from Iran in 1980. "I was moved when I saw them get off the plane and kiss the ground," she said.

The song has taken on new meaning among audiences since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said. The family performed the song at a concert in Somerset, Pa., a week after the attack. "People really responded to it," Vonnie said.

The Wingerts sing their own brand of gospel, a middle-of-the-road blend of southern Baptist and contemporary. Their repertoire includes traditional hymns

It's been a musical family from the beginning. The members, Elwood, 68, Viola, 66, and their four children, Karen, 47, Dean, 46, Vonnie, 42, and Doneta, 36, sang and played instruments at home and in their church, Antrim Brethren in Christ north of Greencastle.

Karen and Doneta are married and sang with the family, along with their husbands, until their children came along. Each sister has two children.

Karen's daughters, Casey and Kellie, recently cut a children's tape, their grandmother said.

"We do this because we love the music," Vonnie said. "It gives us a chance to help people who are hurting. It seems to be our destiny. The best part is when we see our music lift people."

Elwood said the family often gets letters after a concert from people who said the music encouraged them during bad times. "We've restored marriages and brought families back together with our music," he said.

"It's also wonderful fun for our family," Viola said.

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